First Mennonite Church
June 20, 2021
Baptism: Introduction to a New Society
Texts: 2Corinthians 5:14-17; Galatians 3:26-29
14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The practice of baptism in the Christian church is based on the example of Jesus, who was baptized by John the Baptist. Accordingly, prior to his ascension, Jesus also gave this instruction to his disciples: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
In the book of Acts of Apostles, we witness the early church carrying out this command. Those who believed were baptized and joined the community of believers, where they continued their discipleship formation in Christ Jesus.
For more than 200 years after Jesus was baptized, the Christian church practiced baptism as the introductory step into a radically different kind of society. In their world where people were kept locked in a rigid stratified society, those who came to faith in Jesus were introduced into a society of brothers and sister and where all other kinds of labeling and social definitions were shattered and nullified through the ritual of baptism. The greatest dividing wall there was, was the one between Jew and Gentiles. Jews would not touch a Gentile, not even with a ten-foot pole. Gentiles hated Jews for their snobbishness. It was in that context with this particular unsurmountable barrier between Jews and Gentiles where Paul preached Jesus as the unifying force. We will explore more in a bit, but for now, let us make a brief historical review of the practice of baptism.
When Constantine, the Roman Emperor, granted tolerance to Christians in 313 AD, he officially stopped the persecution against Christians. Constantine made Christianity the official religion by decree. Those who resisted to take Christianity as their religion were killed, therefore the masses were converted to confess Christianism, either by conviction or convenience. Baptism lost its original radical social dimension. However, the practice needed to be redefine and continued in the imperial church. Thus, infant baptism came into being and a new theology had to be worked out to justify the new practice. The new theology came up with the idea of an “original sin,” from which the child, who could not ask to be baptized, needed to be saved from it. Child baptism also became useful for the empire/church to keep count of its citizens. The practice of infant baptism still continues today, although the idea of an original sin cannot be found in the Bible, to this day.
Among evangelical churches, baptism has been characterized as “an outward symbol representing an inner or spiritual experience in the individual.” Therefore, what is expected of the baptized person is that he or she can simply “confess” to having had an inner experience. But the question is, is baptism simply a symbol of an inner experience in the individual? Is baptism something to be explained only?
Let us turn back to our passages for today.
In Galatians Paul begins by saying, “The love of Christ compels us, because he died for us all so that we would no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died for us all. For that reason, we do not consider anymore anyone, within the fellowship of Christ’s disciples, according to the labels of the world. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
Being in Christ, means entering into a new world. For us that means, we not only being made new in the inside, but that we begin a new life in a new creation. The old is gone, and the new begins!
Every person who comes to faith in Christ is ushered into a new world, a world where Jesus alone is Lord, Master, Savior, and Father. All believers are new citizens of the kingdom of God and loyal servants of the King of kings. All believers are saved by sheer grace, not by anything they did or have and they all are brothers and sisters, children of one Father. Every difference, given to them by the world or acquired in the world, falls down. Every distinguishing label is erased and rendered futile and ineffectual. In the church, baptism makes us, as the Quakers say, “The Christ in thee meets the Christ in me.” Baptism makes us one and gives us the potential of seeing each other as equals, as brothers and sisters. We all live in Christ, and Christ lives in us all.
That is why, precisely regarding baptism, Paul says the following in Galatians: So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Everyone who is in Christ and who has been baptized into Christ has also been clothed with Christ. Baptism is for those who are in Christ. Once baptized, we are dressed, clad, and vested with Christ. For that reason, explains Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Or as Paul writes in Romans: We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (6:4). Baptism ushers us into a new life, a life of resurrection with Christ.
For the first 200 plus years, the Christian church was the model society to the world around them. In the church there were Jews, Gentiles, masters and slaves, men and women of different races and nationalities, who all worshipped together, sat and ate together, and who served in the name of Christ. All social barriers there were among them were all torn down. Christ was their identity—they were “Christians.”
Pliny the Young, the Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus (now in modern Turkey) wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around AD 112 and asked for counsel on how to deal with the early Christian community.
Pliny was concerned about this new religious group (he actually called a “superstitious group” in order to demean them) because the make-up and practices of the church were seen as harmful to the Empire. The church’s demographic disrupted the established social norms; thus, Christian were seen as political threat for who they were. There were no social boundaries among them. They called themselves “brothers and sisters” even after they were married and for which reason they were accused of incest.
The social effects of baptism was plain and visible to outsiders, through their way of being: there was no hierarchy, earthly distinctions ceased to exist among them, the church was a unique society of brothers and sisters.
Therefore, we see that baptism according to the New Testament is not simply an external symbol of an internal experience nor something only to be explained, because otherwise it meant nothing to outsiders. Baptism was the entry point into a community where equality among its members was the norm. Only Christ was head, Lord, Teacher and Savior.
The church is where God is forming a people in which all social barriers are overcome through Christ and baptism is the entry point. We all come to Christ; we are clothed with Christ. We see the face of Christ in the faces of our sisters and brothers, not the labels the world has given them. The church is where God’s light already shines.
In her book, The Strength of the Weak, Dorothee Sölle recounts the story of a rabbi who asked his students how one could recognize the time when night ends and day begins. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” another student asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” the students asked. “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”
May the light of the Lord continue to dawn in our hearts, so that we might see in each other the face of Christ. If you have been baptized, seek daily to be clothed with Christ. If you want to be baptized, ask the Lord to come into your heart. Make him your Lord and Savior, today. Let us all seek to be that new society, that new humanity our baptism in Christ gives us the potential to be. Amen!
 Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson (Aug 19, 2003)
 Dorothee Sölle,The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 41.